Breakfast and a Book

Readers still hunger for the human touch.


Online and mobile banking have been a godsend to banks because it allows them to service mass customers at a much lower cost. No need for so many tellers, branches, and back-office staff. So banks have been shutting down branches, putting electronic banking kiosks in them, or refurbishing them to meet in comfort with high-net-worth customers.

But not so fast. It turns out people kind of like coming into the branch from time to time. This was one of the trends that emerged in a survey of retail banking strategies I worked on recently (my day job is financial writing).

One bank in particular, Sweden’s Handelsbanken, is staking its future on branches. This bank has expanded beyond Sweden and is growing in Britain, the Netherlands, and other European countries on the principle that branches should be managed locally and have wide-ranging autonomy on loan decisions.

What Handelsbanken has to say about branches applies to bookstores as well. For all the prowess that Amazon has developed in delivering print books and virtually cornering the market on e-books, there’s still something different about browsing for novels where other people are shopping at the same time, where someone (not an algorithm) has taken the trouble to sort through the vast number of titles and highlight choices they like, and where you can ask people who know something about books for advice.

In its latest annual report, Handelsbanken says, yes, people can manage almost all their personal finances with a few clicks on their screen. “But people want to meet people, which is particularly true when it comes to making a major financial decision,” the bank goes on to say. “People want to discuss things and listen to what someone has to say.”

People, it seems, cannot be programmed.

“Remarkably often, customers visit our branches due to a trivial, spontaneous need, on the spot — a simple transaction, which the customer might normally do digitally, but this time chose to do at the branch,” Handelsbanken says. “This need to sometimes meet face-to-face, despite all the technical solutions, will surely change — but never disappear.”

Independent bookstores that have survived, like our own great Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, have been nimble in meeting that need. The books are there in an appetizing cornucopia. Print on demand is also there, and e-books can be downloaded. They have become cultural hubs where you meet and learn (and buy books). A café is virtually de rigueur — eating and drinking will never be digitized.

In fact, my wife and I find ourselves going almost every weekend for breakfast at the Modern Times Coffeehouse at P&P and then heading upstairs to browse through the bookstore, and we rarely leave without buying a book (or two, or five). Like most people, our book-buying far outpaces our book-reading.

In fact, breakfast and a book is probably a bigger thing for us now than the classic dinner and a movie. Hollywood is targeting a different generation, there are many alternative ways to view movies, and television has improved exponentially with delayed viewing and streaming, so we just go to the movie theater a lot less often.

It’s hard to say what the future holds for books or bookstores. Will bookstores find an effective way to leverage human interaction with e-book sales? Will the current business model of publishing and distributing be able to survive? I’m less pessimistic now than a few years ago, when it seemed print books and bookstores were doomed.

Now if we could just get Handelsbanken to open up a branch in Washington.

Darrell Delamaide, a financial journalist based in Washington, is the author of four books, including the novels The Grand Mirage and Gold.

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